Friday, November 29, 2013

Consolidation Blues

On November 14, a French priest was kidnapped near Mokolo in the Extreme North by members of militant Islamic group Boko Haram, recently named a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.  You can read about the incident here.  By all accounts, he was well known in his community, where he had lived and worked for years; this is particularly chilling for Peace Corps volunteers, whose assumed extra cloak of security is their level of integration into often rural communities.  The French tourists who were kidnapped in Waza in February were anonymous; we are not.  Nor, however, was Pere Vandenbeusch.
In response to a diplomatic confirmation that the priest had indeed been taken over the border into Nigeria, Peace Corps changed the security status of the Guider cluster, the group of six volunteers closest to the borders with the Extreme North and with Nigeria.  From standfast—the status we have been under since February, which requires us to stay at our posts and only travel with explicit permission from our directors— we were moved to consolidation, a status under which we all gather in a designated safe place to await further instructions.  Suddenly the security drills we had undergone months ago, which seemed unnecessarily histrionic at the time, with code phrases of the type 11-year olds use to restrict access to a tree house (“The T-shirt is orange!” “The game is over!”), were frighteningly real.

Friday night, the day after the kidnapping, found me at my house.  I had spent the day in meetings, and felt pleasantly tired, but productive.  I had hashed out further details for an upcoming two-day food security conference and overseen the democratic election of the all-female executive board in charge of Mandama’s new Women’s Center.  This was major progress, and the kind of gender-sensitive development I have wanted to do since reading Half the Sky, Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s polemic on women’s rights and equality in the developing world.  I had made dinner—salad, as my new mini fridge allows me to keep lettuce past a day without it subliming into green goo in the heat—and was curled up with Scipio, watching J. Edgar on my computer and idly wondering how on earth they aged Leo so convincingly.  In short, I was in a very good place.

Suddenly Scipio lunged off the stick bed and began barking frantically, triggered by clapping just beyond the circle of light that spills from my house to the front porch.  A flashlight showed a thin, fashionably dressed young man named Ilyasou, my friend and fellow PCV Jack’s primary moto driver in the market town of Guider.  My heart sank.  Ilyasou acts as the cluster’s Pony Express, delivering hand-written notes from Jack to the three of us with no cell phone service who are otherwise unreachable.  As it was 8:30 at night and I was unable to imagine good news that couldn’t have waited until morning, it was with no little trepidation that I took the proffered paper.

It was a summons to Guider until further notice from the Embassy RSO.  As it is strictly forbidden to travel by night, I sent Ilyasou back with a note saying I would come first thing in the morning.  With the extra hours that bought me, I began the grim business of packing my house, just in case.  I had heard too many stories of evacuated volunteers sent to their posts with a Marine guard and three hours to pack everything, say their goodbyes, and get on the road again to want to take any chances.

Accommodating the consolidation in Guider worked out rather nicely; there are three male volunteers in the town, and three women coming in from surrounding bush villages.  I am close with another health volunteer, Will Saitta, so I headed straight to his house; Becca in Douroum is good friends with a youth development volunteer, Graham; and so on.  The resulting division into three odd couples could have been the setup for a reality show—indeed, during some of the longer hours Will and I began scripting drama and filming interviews (we were the pair the audience liked, naturally).  But the balance worked out fairly well, and kept us from getting on each other’s nerves the way we would have had we spent an entire week in one volunteer’s house.

This is not to say that we did not start to get cabin fever.  Will had some work at the regional hospital, so I tagged along for a meeting, and nosily flipped through a stack of medical records in his office (HIPPAA does not exist in Cameroon, at least not for white people.  Want to know if someone’s HIV positive?  Just ask to see their file!).  I also used the time to continue organizing and promoting the upcoming food security conference.  Ultimately, however, there was only so much any of us could do in a state of paralyzing ignorance of our fates, and by the end of the week, we were stir-crazy and starting to get weird.  Here is a list of the things Will and I did to pass the time:

- Planned a 12-week trip to the Balkans, post-COS, beginning in Turkey and ending in Italy

- Watched a six-part documentary about the fall of Yugoslavia to prepare for said voyage

- Watched the most recent two seasons of SNL and quoted the sketches at each other for the rest of the week, much to the annoyance of the other four volunteers subjected to my impersonation of Albanian Tina Fey

- Filmed ourselves for an hour and 14 minutes having an unscripted and most assuredly uninspiring stream-of-consciousness conversation, much of which happened in Scandanavian accents, and some of which included me taking phone calls.  I told you, things got weird, although in our defense I’m pretty sure Andy Warhol did the same thing and it counted as “art”, so there.  Call it our Factory period.

- Carried out an entire conversation in fake Swedish (“Ølle hølle bølle.  Skøl?  Lizbeth Salander”) in a bar, just to confuse the child serving Will hard-boiled eggs from a bucket on his head

- Developed a skill for deadpanning delusional conversations about what we were going to do that night (“I don’t know, I haven’t been bowling in ages.” “Nah, let’s do that tomorrow night, I heard the modern art museum has a new exhibit in the outdoor sculpture garden.” “Ooh, good call—but let’s wait till Friday, there’ll be live jazz and pitchers of sangria!”) We eventually stopped, afraid that going too far down the rabbit hole would only make it more bitter to accept our actual nightly schedule: drinking at a bar with a dirt floor and straw walls and eating street food, probably hard-boiled eggs.

This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship... said our Stockholm syndrome.

All things do come to an end, and we were finally cleared to go back to post, pending further activity from Boko Haram or developments in the case of the priest.  After a detour to Garoua to help the 8 new Northern volunteers move in to their posts, I got back to Mandama yesterday, elated to come home.  I spent today assuring everyone for the umpteenth time that I had not abandoned them, and cleaning in preparation for Thanksgiving visitors at the end of the week.  Scipio had used my absence to transform the front porch into a mausoleum for domestic animal parts, impressive in its scope but lingering in its stench.  I scrubbed the whole thing in bleach water this morning, after disposing of a disembodied chicken foot, a gently curling goat horn, the forehead and eye sockets of a cow skull, a raft of unidentifiable bones, and enough feathers to stuff a pillow.  I have yet to be approached by an enraged former chicken owner demanding reparations, but am prepared for that eventuality.

For the rest of the week I kick into high gear: the aforementioned visitors, Will and another volunteer, Santina, come on Wednesday and will spend Thanksgiving in Mandama.  Friday we’ll all schlep to Guider for a regional Thanksgiving celebration, and Saturday I kick off the food security conference.  By Monday everything will be wrapped up, and I can roll myself and my extra 10 pounds of holiday weight back home. 

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